Wednesday presented an excellent example of the challenges faced by science-based industries in the UK; and, in particular, the space sector. In its Budget announcement, the London government singled out space as one of the key areas of commercial endeavour that would help pull the country out of its current economic woes. Space is a fast growing sector – both in terms of value (10% annually) and in terms of employment (15% annually).
The Chancellor George Osborne wanted to support this vibrant performer, so he unveiled a package of regulatory reform and gave it a small sum of money to start a national Space Technology Programme (UKSTP). This programme will be primed with £10m from the Treasury and £10m from private industry. It will fund R&D projects to make sure British labs and companies keep coming up with innovative products and services that can win exports. All in the space industry applauded. “We welcome the fact that the government recognises the importance of space to growth”, was the common message I was hearing yesterday.
But here’s the thing. As George Osborne was making his Budget announcements in the House of Commons, across the Channel in France the government there was also unveiling a package of support for its space sector.
The value of this package? 500 million euros.
I’m going to write that again so no-one thinks I’ve added an extra naught by mistake. Yes, France’s space sector got an uplift in its government support on Wednesday of 500 million euros (£440m). It is part of Le Grand Emprunt (“The Big Loan”), a colossal bond-financed investment in a variety of fields, but principally in those related to research and education. The money on offer to space is so large the French haven’t decided yet where to spend it all.
The largest chunk – 82.5 million euros initially, to be followed by a further 167 million – is going on the project to develop the successor to the Ariane 5 rocket. This will be a multi-billion-euro endeavour that will eventually require the input of other European nations, but the French intend to lead it.
There are tens of millions of euros also for a new spacecraft to map ocean surface height, for the development of a new class of small satellite platforms, and for new technologies to put on telecommunications spacecraft of the type that route our calls, relay our TV programmes and stream the net.
At this point, I’m reminded of Formula One motor racing, that most hi-tech of sports. I, like many I’m sure, still miss the BBC’s legendry commentator Murray Walker. Talking about investment and development in F1, Murray used to say: “To stand still in this business is to go backwards.” And this is the problem now faced by the British government.
It’s in a race, also, and the country in the next garage is currently out-investing it on a large scale. And that’s true in a number of garages down the pit lane. OK, Metaphor over, but this is the challenge.
The government says the state of the nation’s finances simply cannot allow the type of spending that’s going on in France. So, how does the UK respond?
Richard Peckham is the chairman of UK Space, the umbrella group representing British space companies. He couldn’t avoid the obvious comparison between events in London and Paris on Wednesday either, but he remains very positive about the future. He told me:
“All the things that were mentioned in the Budget were the things we had requested in our Innovation and Growth Strategy that we published last year. Yes, even the £10m of new money gives a good message, given the austerity times and how difficult it is to get any money out of Treasury.
“In the light of announcements from Paris, this might all seem rather small; but I do see this as a road. We asked for a National Technology Programme. We want it to grow to something like a £100m budget, co-funded with industry, and this is the start. I am positive.
“Obviously, we have a long way to go before we get the same view of space as France, Germany and Italy. And in truth, we will always be a bit different because we will always be focussed more on the commercial aspects, on being smarter with our money, whereas they will always be more public-sector-focussed, retaining the large national programmes they have in the past.
“We’re not going to outspend them, not in my lifetime; but we can be innovative and outsmart them. We can bring out the entrepreneur. Look at Virgin Galactic, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and Avanti Communications. These all came out of brilliant ideas.”